Friday, April 18, 2014

SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

CAPTION:
SCDMV vs. Chadrick Don Watts

AGENCY:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

PARTIES:
Appellant:
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles

Respondents:
Chadrick Don Watts
 
DOCKET NUMBER:
07-ALJ-21-0134-AP

APPEARANCES:
n/a
 

ORDERS:

ORDER

STATEMENT OF CASE

THIS MATTER comes before the Administrative Law Court (the “ALC” of “Court”) from the appeal of the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (the “Department”) with regard to the Final Order and Decision issued by the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles Hearings (the “DMVH”) in the contested case of Chadrick Don Watts (“Respondent”). The DMVH’s Order was issued in connection with an administrative hearing that was held pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090(c) (Supp. 2006). The ALC has jurisdiction to hear this matter pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Upon consideration of the record, the DMVH’s Order is REVERSED.

BACKGROUND

The license to operate a motor vehicle upon South Carolina’s public highways is not a property right, but is a mere privilege subject to reasonable regulations in the interests of public safety and welfare. Sponar v. S.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 361 S.C. 35, 39, 603 S.E.2d 412, 415 (Ct. App. 2004), cert. granted on November 17, 2005 (quoting Summersell v. S.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 334 S.C. 357, 366, 513 S.E.2d 619, 624 (Ct. App. 1999), vacated in part on other grounds, 337 S.C. 19, 522 S.E.2d 144 (1999)). Consistent with this principle, S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1090, as amended provides in pertinent part:

“No license to operate motor vehicles in this State may be issued to an habitual offender … (a) for a period of five years from the date of a final decision by the Department of Motor Vehicles that a person is an habitual offender … (c) until, upon petition and for good cause shown, the department may restore to the person the privilege to operate a motor vehicle ….”

Prior to January 1, 2006, the Department’s Office of Administrative Hearings held the hearings requested under Section 56-5-2951(B)(2). However, in the summer of 2005, S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 was extensively amended by Act No. 128, § 22, 2005 S.C. Acts 1503 (the “DMVH Act”). Pursuant to the amended Section 1-23-660, the DMVH was created as a division of the ALC and, as of January 1, 2006, “the duties, functions, and responsibilities of all hearing officers and associated staff” of the Department were transferred to the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Therefore, it is now the DMVH that conducts these hearings.

HISTORY

On March 22, 2004, Respondent was adjudicated as a Habitual Offender under S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020 (2006) with the five (5) year suspension beginning May 27, 2004 and ending May 27, 2009. On October 30, 2006, after having served a suspension of more than two (2) years, Respondent filed a Petition under S.C. Code Ann §56-1-1090 seeking to have his S.C. Driver’s License restored and his privilege to drive reinstated.

The DMVH scheduled a hearing for February 26, 2007, and the Department Hearing Officer (“DHO”) issued a Final Order and Decision on March 21, 2007, that granted Respondent’s petition for a reduction of his Habitual Offender suspension.

FACTS

On March 22, 2004, Respondent was convicted of Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) for his third major motor vehicle offense in three years, making him a Habitual Offender under Section 56-1-1020. Respondent’s driver’s license was suspended for five (5) years beginning on May 27, 2004 and ending on May 27, 2009. The Ten (10) Year Driver Record entered into the record for the DMVH hearing indicated that Respondent was convicted of three (3) separate and distinct driving offenses in 2003. Respondent was convicted of Reckless Driving and, during the months of November and December, he was convicted of two (2) DUI’s, one of which also carried a conviction for a Hit and Run.

On October 20, 2006, Respondent filed a petition for a suspension reduction. More than two (2) years passed since the Habitual Offender suspension, and Respondent’s driving record contained no subsequent motor vehicle offense. The Department filed an Objection to Request for Reduction of Habitual Offender suspension that alleged Respondent was not eligible for a hearing, or a reduction of his suspension, until he successfully completed the Alcohol and Drug Safety Action Program (“ADSAP”).

The DMVH notified the parties that an administrative hearing regarding Respondent’s petition would be held on February 26, 2007. At the hearing, Respondent testified that he had not completed the ADSAP program. However, Respondent informed the DHO that he had enrolled in the Anderson/Oconee Behavioral Health Service program because he was initially informed it would satisfy the ADSAP requirement. Respondent testified that he was informed otherwise at a later time, but there was no evidence submitted into the record to support these statements. Respondent also stated that he has procured the necessary information in order to proceed with ADSAP.

When the DHO asked to hear testimony for good cause, Respondent advanced that he was the sole household provider and that it was inconvenient for his wife to be responsible for driving him and their son. Respondent blamed his suspension on his youth and his inability to deal with life crises, specifically the divorce of parents and his employment situation. Respondent stated that he has since matured and was no longer on the prescribed medication that allegedly led to these problems.

On March 21, 2007, the DHO issued a Final Order and Decision (“Order”) finding good cause to reduce the Habitual Offender suspension of Respondent based primarily on the fact that Respondent complied with the terms of his suspension. The Department now appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The DMVH is authorized by law to determine contested cases arising from the Department. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-660 (Supp. 2006). Therefore, the DMVH is an “agency” under the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-310(2) (2005). As such, the APA’s standard of review governs appeals from decisions of the DMVH. See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A) (Supp. 2006); see also Byerly Hosp. v. S.C. State Health & Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 319 S.C. 225, 229, 460 S.E.2d 383, 385 (1995). The standard used by appellate bodies, including the ALC, to review agency decisions is provided by S.C. Code Ann. §1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006). See S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(B) (Supp. 2006) (directing Administrative Law Judges to conduct appellate review in the same manner prescribed in Section 1-23-380(A)). This section provides:

The court may not substitute its judgment for the judgment of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact. The court may affirm the decision of the agency or remand the case for further proceedings. The court may reverse or modify the decision [of the agency] if substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are:

(a) in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions;

(b) in excess of the statutory authority of the agency;

(c) made upon unlawful procedure;

(d) affected by other error of law;

(e) clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative, and substantial evidence on the whole record; or

(f) arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.

S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(A)(5) (Supp. 2006).

A decision is supported by “substantial evidence” when the record as a whole allows reasonable minds to reach the same conclusion reached by the agency. Bilton v. Best Western Royal Motor Lodge, 282 S.C. 634, 641, 321 S.E.2d 63, 68 (Ct. App. 1984). A decision will not be set aside simply because reasonable minds may differ on the judgment. Lark, 276 S.C. at 136, 276 S.E.2d 304, 307. The fact that the record, when considered as a whole, presents the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent the agency’s findings from being supported by substantial evidence. Waters v. S.C. Land Resources Conservation Comm’n, 321 S.C. 219, 226, 467 S.E.2d 913, 917 (1996); Grant v. S.C. Coastal Council, 319 S.C. 348, 353, 461 S.E.2d 388, 391 (1995).

In applying the substantial evidence rule, the factual findings of the administrative agency are presumed to be correct. Rodney v. Michelin Tire Co., 320 S.C. 515, 519, 466 S.E.2d 357, 359 (1996) (citing Kearse v. State Health and Human Servs. Fin. Comm’n, 318 S.C. 198, 200, 456 S.E.2d 892, 893 (1995)). The party challenging an agency action has the burden of proving convincingly that the agency’s decision is unsupported by substantial evidence. Waters, 321 S.C. at 226, 467 S.E.2d at 917.

ISSUE ON APPEAL

1.                          Did the DHO err in finding that the Respondent established good cause for a habitual suspension reduction despite the fact that Respondent admitted at the hearing that he had not completed ADSAP?

The Habitual Offender laws of South Carolina exist to discourage repeat offenders and to keep the highways free from drivers that threaten the safety of others. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1010 (2006). Included in the enumerated offenses that qualify as a Habitual Offender violation are Driving Under the Influence and Reckless Driving. S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1020(a)(2) and (3). Furthermore, under Section 56-5-2990, conviction of a DUI results in the suspension of the license to drive and requires enrollment in and successful completion of ADSAP. Consequently, conviction of a DUS before completing a certified ADSAP course under Section 56-5-2990(B) or the mere failure to fulfill the ADSAP requirement may be considered as a violation contemplated by the Habitual Offender laws of this State. The public policy of Chapter 1 of Title 56 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina exist to keep the roads safe and to enforce compliance with the laws of the State.

No clear objective standard of what constitutes “good cause” is found, but South Carolina law suggests that the facts must extend beyond those that are merely personal in nature and common to the population in general (italicized portion added by this Court). See Faile v. South Carolina Employment Sec. Commission, 267 S.C. 536, 541-542 (1976) (finding that the meaning of “good cause” within the provisions of S.C. Unemployment Compensation Law did not contemplate benefits for an employee that was compelled to quit her job solely based on personal circumstances.); see also Ex parte Capital U-Drive-It, 369 S.C. 1, 13 (2006) (finding that appellant did not establish good cause to keep his family court records sealed where he claimed the records contained extremely personal, private, and confidential matters.). Determining whether good cause is shown involves a balancing of the needs of the parties as they weigh against public policy. See Doe v. Ward Firm, P.A., 353 S.C. 509, 514 (2003) (finding good cause to examine the medical records of the biological parents based on the compelling needs of the adopted child, and by balancing the privacy rights of the parties against the best interest of the child). Ultimately, the finding of good cause, or lack thereof, must be made by the Court on a case by case basis.[1]

In this case, Respondent Watts stated for the record that he attended a course that he was told would fulfill ADSAP requirement. The record contains a document from the Anderson-Oconee BHS showing that Respondent participated in its treatment from June 1, 1998 to October 9, 2006. Although it is apparent that Respondent exhibited some level of maturity, the Court does not find any credible evidence to support the testimony that Respondent was informed that the facility qualified was certified. The Court finds that the DHO was in error when he stated that he did not require any other documentation to make a decision and was continued to be dismissive of the statutory compliance requirement. Hrg Tr. 15:10-22.

Moreover, the Court does not find that there was any substantial evidence to establish good cause for a Habitual Offender suspension reduction. Respondent’s petition for a suspension reduction and the hearing testimony advanced as good cause his personal needs, such as the personal need to drive himself and his son and the inconvenience it causes the family. Unfortunately, the Court does not find these assertions different from any other person in the general population, who would also require the privilege to drive.

While the Court is very much sympathetic with the personal needs of Respondent, and cognizant of the personal difficulties that can arise without having a valid driver’s license, the Court is not presented with any overriding evidence of good cause that outweighs the public policy behind the Habitual Offender laws of the State. The plain fact is that Respondent’s driving record demonstrates a repeated indifference for the laws of the State. Despite the fact that Respondent has met the two year statutory waiting period of Section 56-1-1090 and attempted to complete the ADSAP requirement, Respondent’s driving record exhibits a continued disregard for the laws of the State. Not to mention, the history of multiple DUI’s along with a Hit and Run suggest that he is a danger to the highways. The Court finds that the DHO was in error in allowing a reduction of the Habitual Offender suspension, based on the substantial evidence in the record and the laws of the State.

CONCLUSION

Based on the facts in the record and the law of the State, the DHO was in error for reducing the habitual offender suspension of Respondent. There was no substantial evidence in the record on appeal supporting the conclusion that good cause was shown for a reduction in the Habitual Offender suspension.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED, that the Order of the DHO is REVERSED.

________________________________

John D. McLeod, Judge

S.C. Administrative Law Court

January 24, 2008

Columbia, SC



[1] Because each case will turn on its own facts, readers should not attempt to divine any precedent from this Order.


~/pdf/070134.pdf
PDF